The West’s capacity to tackle terrorism in Afghanistan without ground forces will be “clumsy and much less effective” from now on, a former US deputy national security adviser said.
Prof Meghan O’Sullivan said the war on terror, that kicked off in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, will remain “part of the landscape” for the years.
Prof O'Sullivan spoke at a Chatham House forum on two decades since the September 11 attacks as Ken McCallum, director general of Britain's MI5, said there was “no doubt” that events in Afghanistan will have “heartened and emboldened” extremists and predicted a return of “Al Qaeda-style” terrorist plots.
Mr McCallum said that although the government has pledged to judge the Taliban by their actions, security forces will plan for the possibility that “more risk, progressively, may flow our way”.
Like all western security agencies, MI5 is grappling with how can it deter terrorists without infringing on civil liberties.
Prof O’Sullivan, who advised former US president George W Bush on the security of Iraq and Afghanistan between 2004 and 2007, drew a parallel between the fight against terrorism and the battle with the coronavirus.
She said “not having intelligence on the ground, not having close partnerships with indigenous forces on the ground is going to mean that our counterterrorism approach is going to be much more clumsy, it’s going to be probably less effective”.
The new approach would carry even more baggage than having a presence in the country, she said.
Looking back on the 9/11 attacks before the 20th anniversary on Saturday, Prof O’Sullivan said that after the Twin Towers collapsed many experts predicted “an age of terror” would follow.
However, she said the threat of terrorism was miscalculated by many and the years that followed were not marked by constant attacks.
As the US reeled from the disaster, she said the country’s energy was absorbed by four main areas over the following years.
These comprised the war in Iraq, the conflict in Afghanistan, the reorganisation of military, intelligence and law enforcement both domestically and internationally, and counterterrorism co-operation, the latter of which became a focal point of bilateral co-operation around the world.
Dr John Sawers, who was chief of MI6 from 2009 to 2014, said western leaders today have more on their plate than merely tackling the threat of terrorism, and said the current terrorist threat is “not an existential challenge to western democracy”.
Now, he said, the priorities for leaders in the US and other western nations are broadening to include managing the threat from Russia, tackling the climate crisis, addressing the rise of China and preventing nuclear war.
But he said the combination of Islamic extremism and right-wing terrorism would be “continuing challenges” for western leaders and that the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan had inspired terrorists.
Hina Rabbani Khar, former Pakistani minister of foreign affairs, was critical of much of the West’s approach to countering extremism and terrorism in Afghanistan, saying leaders were guilty of making “massive tactical errors and massive strategic errors” there.
She said the wider region is home to a new wave of terrorist groups, which are arguably more dangerous than those 20 years ago, and used ISIS as an example.
Ms Khar said the US and coalition forces invading Afghanistan after 9/11 could be perceived as akin to a “call for revenge rather than a realistic assessment of what can be achieved” in terms of making the country safer.